Category Archives: #nowplaying

Joan Baez

I don’t get to spin my Bob Dylan records often, but I used his 67th birthday as an excuse to make Blonde on Blonde our pre-dinner music on Wednesday evening. The album’s been kicking around the front of my consciousness since I found out about the Old Crow Medicine Show cover version, which I ended up really enjoying. I love that it’s live — the extra energy keeps it from feeling staid or overly reverential, even though it is faithful.

I haven’t picked that one up yet, but I’ve been listening to another Dylan covers album, one I got when a friend’s neighbor decided to jettison her record collection. It’s called Any Day Now — 4 sides of Joan Baez doing Dylan tunes, including a striking a cappella version of “Tears Of Rage” that I’ve been playing over and over. I’m so used to The Band’s Big Pink cut that other versions are bound to stand out, but there’s something about the way Baez sings it… So intentional, like the lyrics mean something different to her than they might to someone else.

Joan Baez — “Tears Of Rage” [Spotify/iTunes]

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Devon Sproule

Off Your Radar readers might remember I nominated Devon Sproule’s I Love You, Go Easy album for issue #38. There are a bunch of reasons I’m crazy about that album, but here’s one I zoomed in on in my OYR blurb:

Lyrics that are this meticulously constructed shouldn’t flow so naturally, but here, they drift along on the gentle tide of Sproule’s prosaic gift.

I learned just this week that Sproule put out a new album earlier this year called The Gold String, and it’s lovely in all the ways I Love You, Go Easy is, especially when it comes to the way the lyrics flow. In fact, she touches on a similar idea in the title track when she imagines an endless strand that connects everyone and everything. Her description of it is nothing short of elegant, in large part because form and theme are one; she describes this inspiring connectedness using verses that lead into one another and this amazing rolling rhyme scheme that weaves together phrases in ear-pleasing clusters. Her words become the string she’s singing about. It’s really incredible.

If you ask 10 people about how the universe is connected, you’re likely to get 10 fairly different answers, but my answer would probably involve language — maybe not words themselves, but the desire to be understood and to understand. The space between your brain and someone else’s isn’t just space if you’re filling it with communication. It really is a way to make something from nothing. I’m drifting a bit myself here, so I’ll close by saying that for fans of language, Sproule’s writing is a gift, and I’d recommend The Gold String in the strongest terms.

Devon Sproule — “The Gold String” [Spotify/iTunes]

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Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Been trying to catch up after a dizzying few weeks of new releases. Last Friday was just bonkers, with solid or very good albums from Colin Stetson, Willie Nelson, Sylvan Esso, Feist, and Gorillaz, among others, not to mention the Sufjan live album and an Old Crow Medicine Show live set celebrating Blonde on Blonde. (Were all those spaced out over the course of six months, I’d call it a good six months for new music. One day? C’mon.)

Going back a little further, a new Preservation Hall Jazz Band album came out the Friday before that, and it’s excellent as well. It’s being billed as the group’s nod to Cuban influences, and you can certainly feel the rhythm as a focal point. Especially on “La Malanga,” an infectious call-and-response tune with a snare build that could get an EDM fesitval crowd going. Ok, maybe not the Fyre Festival crowd. That might be tough.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band — “La Malanga” [Spotify/iTunes]

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One-Line Enlightenment

Are you in the market for some fact-acting self-knowledge and/or spiritual fulfillment? Might I suggest one line each from these three newish songs?

JR JR — “Same Dark Places”

One-Line Enlightenment: “I know everybody goes to the same dark places”

It’s easy to feel alone and isolated when you’re suffering in some way, but there’s a really good chance that people — maybe even people you know — have gone through or are currently going through something similar. “Same Dark Places,” which was accompanied by a touching message about the song’s origins, does a wonderful job of shining a bright, compassionate light on those shadowy emotional spaces.

Future Islands — “Through The Roses”

One-Line Enlightenment: “It’s not easy just being human”

Speaking of compassion, when you approach interpersonal communication with a basic level of empathy — “This person I’m talking to has the same basic wants and needs as me and could be dealing with difficulties that aren’t immediately apparent, etc.” — it’s amazing how much easier it is to defuse charged situations and find positive outcomes. This line from the new Future Islands album reminds me of this in such a simple and powerful way. The video above ain’t great, but the message comes through loud and clear.

Eric Slick — “You Are Not Your Mind”

One-Line Enlightenment: “You are not your mind”

I often fall into the trap of assuming there’s a way to think my way out of every situation. I also tend to prioritize my inner experience when I’m feeling less than good about what’s going on on the outside, whether that’s the clothes I’m wearing or my inability to force myself to exhibit extroversion when it counts. And while the mind can certainly act as a refuge, I love the idea that there’s some other self that’s even more basic — something that’s not so readily accessible or easily tinkered with. I’ve read that meditation was a big part of the inspiration behind Eric Slick’s new Palisades album, so I’m sure he has a more precise idea of what this lyric is getting at, but just hearing it gives me this tremendous sense of relief, like walking away from an elaborate array of spinning plates.

To bring things full circle, here’s a video of Eric Slick speaking very articulately about the need for open discussion of mental health.

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Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann

So this new Aimee Mann album is excellent.

I gave it a headphones-in listen last night while grilling and damn near had an out-of-body experience when I got to the chorus of “Patient Zero,” which reads:

Life is good
You look around and think I’m in the right neighborhood
But honey you just moved in
Life is grand
And wouldn’t you like to have it go as planned

What a thing to have sung to you while standing in the backyard of your new home on a windy night, watching clouds zoom past the moon. That place she’s describing — the pocket of time before life grabs hold of the course you’ve plotted and adds twists and turns to it — that’s exactly where my family is right now.

And that ominous subtext… I feel that, too. This may sound strange, but it reminds me of carbon dating and how each of us carries around tiny amounts (hopefully) of radioactivity in the form of radiocarbon. You stop exchanging it with the environment when you die, and the degree of decay is what tells scientists when you lived, but part of being alive is having this weird, low-level hum going on inside you at all times. I feel like the chorus of “Patient Zero” hums that way, only instead of radioactivity, it’s putting off the trace amount of doubt that even an optimist can’t escape. Being subject to fate can be frustrating, especially when it comes to mortgages, but it’s the cost of still being alive.

Did I mention the video stars Josh Lyman?

Aimee Mann — “Patient Zero” [Spotify/iTunes]

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Feist

One more dispatch from the moving/unpacking process:

I mentioned in my Tommy James post that it was fun filing away records I hadn’t seen in a while. This is one I’m not sure I’d even heard yet, so I gave it a spin. Feist covering Mastodon. Mastodon covering Feist. A tidy and memorable portmanteau serving as the title.

As you might have guessed, given the quirky pairing, this was a Record Store Day release. 2012, to be exact, which seems like ages ago, until you consider that Feist’s most recent LP, Metals, came out a year before that. Even crazier is the fact that The Reminder came out four years before Metals, which puts us all the way back in 2007. The irony here is that she’s a near-daily part of my life, thanks to my daughter, whose love of “1234” hasn’t wavered since I posted about it last August. It’s astonishing how well The Reminder holds up. I don’t know what I would have said if you’d told me in 2007 that, ten years later, I’d still be listening to this album regularly and that Donald Trump would be president. I probably would have just stared at you blankly.

Speaking of Donald Trump, here are a few lyrics from “Black Tongue,” the Mastodon song Feist covers on this 7-inch:

You own the darkness
Have taken my sight
You buried the stars underground
You’ve stolen the night

You can run to the sea
You can run to the forest
You can hide
But you’ll never escape

Really the whole thing can be read as a clairvoyant rendering of Trump’s media omnipresence and anti-Democratic tendencies. Except for the line later on in the song about running out of lies. He seems to draw from a bottomless well there.

What we were talking about? Oh yeah — unpacking records is fun! (And yay for new Feist at the end of April!)

Feist — “Black Tongue” (Mastodon cover) [YouTube]

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Record Store Day

So this may end up being the earliest I’ve woken up to wait in line at BK Music on Record Store Day. The sun will not be out. The birds will not be chirping. The Mennonites won’t even be making donuts at the South of the James Farmer’s Market. I’m talking oh dark thirty. (The time, not the movie in which Andy from The Office kills Osama bin Laden.)

Why so early? Mostly because of this:

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit — Welcome to 1979

Let me count the reasons:

  1. I’m not sure which I heard first, the studio version on Here We Rest or the live version on Live from Alabama, but Isbell’s take on “Heart On A String” put Candi Staton on my radar, and it represents a crucial part of his own personal history, given that Staton’s original version was recorded at Fame in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The phrase “full circle” comes to mind when I hear Isbell perform “Heart On A String.” It makes clear that he both remembers and understands where he came from.
  2. I haven’t gotten to see Isbell do The Stones’ “Sway” live, but setlist.fm tells me that the cover closed his 2008 set on Brown’s Island here in Richmond, which is neat. I have seen him do “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” however, and he does a great job. It’s one of those “Man, that dude knows how to get just the right guitar tone” songs.
  3. John Prine, y’all. No need to for elaboration there.
  4. 400 Unit renditions of Isbell-penned Truckers songs make the world go ’round, and “Never Gonna Change” was the song with which he ended his outstanding 2016 Altria Theater performance. Man, was that show good. I said on Instragram at the time that he “pitched a perfect game,” and the experience has only gotten rosier in retrospect.
  5. What can I say about “Atlantic City”? It’s on a very short list of “All Time” favorites on Spotify and I wrote a mini-essay on the song after spending time in the city for the first time, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Isbell perform it. I’m sitting here trying to think of a combination of artist and cover that would make we wake up earlier in the morning… Thom Yorke singing “Hallelujah”? Donald Trump singing “2 + 2 = 5”?

There must be something in the water, because four of the other titles I’m most hoping to see at BK are also live sets:

Would also be neat to snag the Lumineers’ Song Seeds 10-inch. As someone who’s contributed parts to music written by Wes, I like the concept of the album — hearing songs at different stages of fruition. It’s the same reason I was so psyched to hear the episode of Song Exploder that featured “Ophelia.”

I better stop there before I get carried away. See y’all in line on April 22nd.

 

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